PITTSBURGH -- Young children with autism appear to be delayed in their ability to categorize objects and, in particular, to distinguish between living and nonliving things, according to a breakthrough study by researchers at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. The paper has been published in the Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities and the results could provide a cognitive explanation for one of the characteristics of autism: the inability to recognize the goals and motivations of others.
Previous research has shown that young children with autism have the same abilities as normally developing children to categorize objects based on so-called surface characteristics, such as size and shape. They have a diminished ability, however, to group objects into more abstract categories (e.g., birds, trees, cars and furniture). A key characteristic that differentiates living and nonliving things is the ability of the former to move on their own, and as humans, we rely on the motions of others -- a hand reaching out to shake ours, a person running toward us -- to help us interpret their actions and intentions.
"People have not really studied these conceptual deficits in very young children as the possible basis for the social and cognitive deficits in older children and adults with autism," said Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Rakison, who co-authored the paper with Cynthia Johnson, director of the Autism Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"This study opens the door for further research of preschool-age children, which could aid us in the development of possible diagnostic tools and therapies," Johnson said. "Children with autism have the best outcomes when they are diagnosed and begin treatment at an early age."